Communication, access surface as top challenges in Nepal flood response

Families impacted by monsoon floods and landslides in the Rautahat district in Nepal. Photo by: Plan International

BANGKOK — The rain has finally slowed, but the work is just beginning for humanitarian actors responding to what is being called “Nepal’s worst rainfall in 15 years” by the country’s United Nations Office of the Resident Coordinator.

Reports are beginning to trickle in from across southern Nepal on just how much damage the past week’s monsoon rains have done. Incessant rain has triggered widespread flooding and landslides in 27 of the country's 75 districts, killing an estimated 115 people, wiping out homes, crops and stored grains and sweeping away livestock. Clean drinking water is scarce, and the threat of waterborne illnesses high.

Search and rescues are underway in all 27 districts, and Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs authorities estimates that hundreds of thousands of people have been affected, though the exact number of people in need of assistance remains unknown. The population of the flood-hit districts totals approximately 11.5 million people.

“The flooding has affected a much larger area of land [than the 2015 earthquake], with crops wiped out in so many places in the country’s rice bowl and bread basket — the most important food-producing region.”

— Neena Joshi, spokeswoman for Heifer International

There are still more questions than answers for humanitarian actors on the ground, many of whom were able to begin delivering aid — mainly dry food items, water and tarpaulins — to communities in need of assistance on Tuesday, as water receded in the east. Still, flooded roads and continuous rain through Wednesday in the west have made transport a major obstacle, while drowned telecommunication towers and lines are testing teams’ communication abilities.

Shreeram KC, communications manager for Plan International Nepal, cited transportation as the biggest challenge to the INGO’s current response in the country. In Rautahat district, the Plan emergency response team on Tuesday focused on delivering food items to 250 families in some of the most marginalized communities of the district — at high risk for sudden and severe impact on malnutrition rates.

The main highway to reach the identified area has been flooded at least 100 meters across, KC described, with many people having to stop at a point on one side, take a boat across the floodwater and organize separate transport on the other end. Once in the vicinity, Plan is relying mainly on motorbikes and local tractors to help deliver supplies in areas dry enough to drive.

Adding to the challenge is that “the communities we are trying to assist are very scattered,” KC said. “As the week continues we are thinking to have more motorbikes and local tractors to carry the goods to the distribution points.”

Many community members are seeking shelter in schools, or creating crowded makeshift floating villages out of boats. Community leaders who might have relied on a mobile phone to call for assistance in these cases aren’t able to do so, due to lack of charging power.

Collapsed telecom towers in some districts, meanwhile, are making coordination a challenge among NGO staff members as well, according to Durga KC, associate director of programs for nonprofit Heifer International Nepal, which works with smallholder farmers throughout the country. KC is currently managing a 15-member relief operation in the mid-western part of the country, focused on assistance in Sunsari, Morang, Rautahat, Banke and Bardiya.

To make up for lack of mobile communication during the day, “in the evening, no matter where we’ve gone that day, we come together and sit together to review what we’ve accomplished and make a plan for the next day,” Heifer’s KC said.

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Nepal Red Cross Society has mobilized 500 people on the ground to assist local government authorities to conduct rapid needs assessments and to paint a more comprehensive picture of damages. Right now, the most immediate needs are food, water, medicine and animal feed, as well as blankets and tarps, according to Dibya Raj Poudel, Nepal Red Cross Society head of communications.

This emergency comes at a time when Nepal is still struggling to recover from the 2015 earthquake; five of the current flood affected districts are also earthquake affected districts, and four of the current flooded districts had yet to fully recover from large-scale flooding in 2014.

“We are feeling pressure to give support to many areas,” Poudel said, “perhaps beyond our capacity.”

Though immediate needs are topping to-do lists, many humanitarians are already looking ahead at long-term effects, namely on agriculture, food security and nutrition.

The flooding can’t compare to the devastating 2015 earthquake if considering casualties alone, said Neena Joshi, a spokeswoman for Heifer International in Nepal, “but the flooding has affected a much larger area of land, with crops wiped out in so many places in the country’s rice bowl and bread basket — the most important food-producing region.”

With so many livelihoods hanging in the balance, it will be crucial to take as swift and as effective action as possible, said Poudel, who estimates that the Red Cross, together with the Nepal government, will complete the initial rapid assessments this week.  

“This is a time of emergency response,” he said. “From next week, we can manage properly and know what to support, where to support and how to support.”

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

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